Among all the difficult and pressing issues facing conserving African wildernesses and wildlife, news last week that a Kenya-based leucistic Rothschild (Nubian) giraffe is once again in calf provides a brief and wonderful respite. First reported on by villagers in the Ishaqbini Hirola Sanctuary in north-east Kenya, anecdotal sightings of a white giraffe were corroborated by Ishaqbini Community Rangers in April 2016. A year later, a video – another first – taken by rangers showing the giraffe with her calf went viral.
While the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) claims that she is ‘the only white giraffe in the world’, both her son and a Maasai giraffe – nicknamed Omo – discovered in 2015 in Tarangire National Park, in Tanzania, were leucistic, albeit less obviously so in the case of the latter, whose coat showed patches of markings, particularly on its legs. I can only assume, therefore, that this means they’ve succumbed to either predators or poachers. Either that or some of the more factual-based messaging has been lost in translation.
Whether the only one or not, Kenya’s leucistic giraffe is extremely rare. Originally termed ‘partial albinism’, leucism is caused by a recessive gene that affects the production of pigment, particularly melanin. The failure in production is partial, which accounts for the difference in colouring between different leucistic animals, and for the fact that, even in the case of the white giraffe of Ishaqbini Hirola Sanctuary, there is evidence of colour, particularly in the eyes. There is nothing partial about albinism, which is now defined as the absence of pigmentation.
Obviously, given its rarity, the fact that the white giraffe is in calf makes global headlines. However, as anyone who has had the chance to observe the giraffe in the wild well knows, it’s an extraordinary creature, leucistic or not. Sadly, the last 35 years have seen a 40 percent decline in numbers. According to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, reasons why include ‘habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, habitat degradation, human population growth, poaching, disease, war and civil unrest.’
Additionally, less a conservation pinup than the rhino, elephant, or lion, the plight of the giraffe raises much less by way of attention and funds. The result is that the genus giraffe is now listed by the IUCN Red List as ‘vulnerable’, while its four species and five subspecies range from ‘least concern’ to ‘critically endangered’. This being the case, it’s vital that any news of leucistic giraffes is harnessed for the good of all.